Many years ago, when I was working as a Consultant at the Ministry of Education to develop English medium in government schools, I was quite positive about Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was Minister at the time. She had contributed to rescuing English medium when Ranil was trying to destroy it, and then she had courageously stopped his administration in its tracks when it tried to gazette regulations through the Ministry of Defence which seemed to threaten the security of the country. And though she left the running at Education to Tara, she fully backed her innovations.
Dayan Jayatilleka had also been very positive about Chandrika while Ranil was Prime Minister. I got to know him well in those days, where we both served on the Board of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, which Lakshman Kadirgamar chaired. Chandrika had appointed him to that position when the SLFP lost power after the 2001 election, and he had set up a group with which it was marvellous to interact.
And he achieved a lot in terms of the new courses it started, as well as the links it established with similar institutions in other countries.
But soon after Chandrika won the election she called in 2004, her relationship with Kadirgamar changed. It was claimed that she resented his burgeoning connection with Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Prime Minister.
Chandrika had wanted to appoint Kadirgamar as Prime Minister, but Mahinda, who had been Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, ensured that his support base insisted that he be given the position. And though Kadirgamar was I think disappointed, he sensibly gave Mahinda his full cooperation.
Chandrika could not take that, and began to ignore his advice, instead turning to Jayantha Dhanapala, about whom Kadi had always been cautious.
Thus she ended up endorsing the POST TSUNAMI OPERATIONAL MANAGEMENT STRUCTURE (PTOMS) agreement, which the Supreme Court rejected in July 2005.
It should be noted though that Sarath Silva, canny as always, did not reject it totally, and affirmed that the President had every right to sign such an agreement. But it ‘suspended the establishment of tsunami financial office in Kilinochchi (since) the government cannot transfer powers of financial management and policy planning to any committee and there should be a transparency in such matters.’
By this time Dayan was not as supportive of Chandrika as he had been before. Knowing Kadi well, and privy to his thinking about the problems in our Foreign Ministry, still dominated by those who had cut their teeth under J.R. Jayewardene and his partisanship (and opposition to India) during the Cold War, he felt that Chandrika had lost her way and was capable of compromising with the Tigers as Ranil had done, if not quite so pusillanimously.
But he was still polite about her, and when he told me I should not rely on her as someone who could get things done – I believe I was talking about continuing educational reform, and the radical measures Tara realized were needed – he confined himself to telling me that she was now history, for her period in office would soon be over.
I did not realize then that she would in fact lose a year of office, since to me the constitution was crystal clear about the fact that her term of office ended in November 2006. But sadly her lawyers did not bother to explain clearly the phrasing in the constitution that was ambiguous, and though in fact, I called one of them when the matter was being argued, to explain it, he told me it was too late to raise that point.
But of course, that was precisely what Sarath Silva pointed out, claiming that, where that was ambiguity – which he stressed had not been explained away by the lawyers – it was the duty of the Court to rule in a manner that would benefit the country.
Continues to dog
And based on that preamble, he ruled that Chandrika’s term expired in November 2005. And so she became history, though she was resurrected in 2014 when she was one of the principal architects of Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to stand for the Presidency. Sadly, though he had great faith in her at the time, she did nothing to promote an SLFP agenda, concerning herself rather with revenge while in fact encouraging the strengthening of the UNP at the expense of her own party.
And as it turned out, all her protégés ended up joining the UNP. She was supposed after the election to allocate office to those who appeared at the Press Conference with her and Sirisena when he announced his candidacy, but in telling me that she had chosen the portfolio of Higher Education for me, she ignored the commitment in the Sirisena manifesto that it should be a Cabinet position, and in fact she ensured, when I refused to do her bidding, that there would be someone on top of me (from the UNP of course) who would. And she trashed Vasantha Senanayake, claiming that he was in the UNP though he had made it clear to her that he had not changed parties. He only joined the UNP later, after the SLFP in its triumphalist mode, a characteristic that continues to dog both it and the SLPP when they scent victory had rejected the possibility of giving him nomination.
But I should perhaps note that perhaps Ranil will now try to push him into the SLFP, given that only he and Harsha had the courage after the Local Elections, to say to the media that they thought Ranil should go. Harsha then swiftly retracted, to be suitably rewarded by both the UNP and the USA, with even a stint at harvest to sharpen his skills. But Vasantha continues to speak up, and even had the temerity to ask for a copy of the party constitution, a request that the new secretary has of course referred to his leader.
Of the other members of the then government who supported Sirisena at the inception, Rajitha Senaratne and M.K.D.S. Gunawardena duly joined the UNP before the General Election. Though Duminda Dissanayake stayed on, to be appointed Secretary of the SLFP when Sirisena panicked about it doing too well, it is generally agreed now that he must be changed if the party is to have any hope of recovering. But whether Chandrika will permit that, given that she has shown no interest in building up that party, remains to be seen.
Fought her battle
After hearing how she dissuaded a leading lawyer from joining the SLFP and guided him instead towards the UNP, I now begin to think her sins of omission and commission after the presidential election were deliberate.
Earlier I had thought, as indeed I told her then, that she had a tendency to relax when she had triumphed. Collapse into lethargy was what I meant, and I think she understood for she gave me a sharp look, before turning the charm on and assuring me that this time things would be different.
But they weren’t, and now, remembering Dayan’s strictures about the PTOMs and her belittling of Kadirgamar, I can see now that even then her incapacity to move forward was not just lethargy, it arose from a political perspective that is a million miles from that of her parents. That she has a pluralist perspective however all to the good, and that she is combined it with the courage to stand up to Ranil when he was giving in to terrorist demands should still be remembered positively.
Along with this, though, it is both interesting and entertaining to recall the manner in which she fought her battle with the UNP in those difficult days. In my archives I have a delightful article from the Sunday Times of July 28 2002 which describes ‘mixed reactions to President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Polonnaruwa speech that has become the centrepiece of a major political controversy’.
The article expands on this by saying:
‘The President’s remarks, which were telecast over the state TV, were unbecoming of a head of state that even her admirers had to ask themselves, “What has happened to this lady?”
But her ardent supporters defended the speech, saying it was an effective way to convey her message to the people. Her target group was the masses, not the elite.
They asked why there was little criticism when Minister Rajitha Senaratne made similar speeches.
President Kumaratunga was certainly streets ahead of him, they said.’
I should note that this was when Rajitha was, as he is now, a member of the UNP.
He had previously been Secretary of the BNP that Chandrika set up when expelled from the SLMP that Vijaya Kumaranatunga and she set up when they originally left the SLFP. But when Chandrika rejoined the SLFP, Rajitha joined the UNP, and became one of her fiercest critics, including when the UNP formed a government in late 2001 while she was President.
The list of those Chandrika attacked in her 2002 Polonnaruwa performance is most revealing – ‘Her attack on Minister Ravi Karunanayake was ferocious. She did not even leave out the minister’s ancestors or even others, for that matter…. Others who came under severe presidential stricture were Ministers G.L. Peiris, S.B. Dissanayake, Rajitha Senaratne, K.N. Choksy and Tilak Marapana’.
Of course, as is obvious from this list, it is not only Chandrika who has shifted. Even Choksy after all became a supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
But the question should be, can we trace any policy continuity in these upheavals, and what interpretation of the country’s interests?